Needed: Fansite Guidelines

The launch of 5th Edition is coming closer and closer. Wizards of the Coast sent out the now infamous Press Release announcing the Summer of 2014, which everyone kinda already knew. And there is whispers from 3rd Party Publishers that WotC is courting them again, promising a new System Licence, one that will be closer to the Open Game License of 3e and less like the Game System Licence of 4e.

A revised and envigorated 3PP community is great, as is a flexible System Licence, but it ignores a great swath of people: the fans. It’s easier than ever to get your own content online, when anyone can set up a WordPress, Tumblr, or Blogger website and begin posting their own content.

Fan content on the internet is not new. I found swaths of material for D&D when I first went online back in ‘95. Although, much of this was generic and not explicitly for D&D: TSR struggled with the idea of fan content and was reputed to have shut down fan sites. Although the truth of the claims or number of killed sites is hard to verify given how much time has passed.

The OGL made posting content online even easier. Many sites grew complacent with what information they could host. The transition from 3e to 4e also hit fan sites hard: when the rules changed sites were suddenly hit with Cease + Desists.

The 4e Fan Site Licence

When 4e launched I regularly called for the release of a “ Fan Site Policy”, rules to tell fans what they could and could not do. WotC eventually released the “Fan Site Kit”, which I derisively began calling the “Fan Site Licence”. The Kit was little more than a collection of images approved for use, and fans were told to use the Game System Licence if they wanted to generate their own content.

The GSL is a licence meant to allow the signer to gain some use of WotC trade dressing and Intellectual Property in exchanging for giving up the ability to do certain things normally permitted under copyright. The GSL has some heavy restrictions, preventing alternate or house rules, altering races or classes, and even referencing page numbers. The GSL can end at any time, forcing books using it to be pulled and, in theory, websites operating under it to shut down. The GSL also imposes limits on formats, with the only electronic format being PDF. Releasing otherwise GSL compliant content as a blog entry or forum post is not permitted.

The GLS is tricky from a publisher statpoint, but not insurmountable. However, the GSL is extremely problematic for fan content. First, it’s written in heavy legalese, which is not always easy to comprehend. Even if you can decipher what it says, that is no guarantee of what it means because of the way legal precedence and rulings work. Lawyers need to be consulted. While lawyers are a must if starting a 3rd Party Publisher, they’re excessive when starting a fansite, when the start-up cost might otherwise be $0.

Thesis

Wizards of the Coast needs to write a comprehensive yet plain language set of guidelines for owning and operating a fansite.

These Fan Site Guidelines need to include what fan sites are approved to do, what WotC would prefer fan sites not to do, and how fan sites interact with the 3PP licence.

Having a simple, easily understood policy means it’s easier for fans to contribute to the game, to share their thoughts and voices. This raises the profile of the game and the hobby.

Reducing the potential confusion in what is acceptable in a fan site makes it easier on the WotC legal department, as there should be fewer violators and fans can easily direct offenders to the licence without WotC having to involve themselves. The fewer websites WotC needs to take down, the better their image in the community, and the more willing fans will be to risk creating their own site (and thus raising the profile of the hobby).

There’s a few different types of D&D websites, and good Fan Site Guidelines should consider all of them.

Homegame Sites

One type of site is those dedicated to a particular homegame or group. This would apply equally to Obsidian Portal or Epic Words pages.

It’s exceedingly handy for Dungeon Masters to be able to post summaries of their campaign on the website, including descriptions of what races are like and details of the campaign’s world. The internet and free websites are a great gaming tool, being easy to update, accessible in most locations, and easy to distribute via a URL. Personal websites are also a handy place to put a campaign journal, character backgrounds, and list NPCs.

WotC is not likely to sue or C+D because some DM reflavoured elves or used a trademarked term like “mind flayers” on their not-for-profit homesite. But it would be nice to have reassurance of that. It would be handy to know what lines WotC prefers people not to cross when putting content on a home site.

This would also help protect sites such as the aforementioned Obsidian Portal or Epic Words. These are protected by direct legal action by the same laws that protect YouTube from lawsuits over user posted content. But the staff at both would likely feel more comfortable if they have some extra guidelines to point to when infringing content pops up.

Fan Generated Content

There’s something about being a DM that leads to creativity. Most DMs invariably make some custom content. This is often monsters but sometimes includes races, spells, or even classes. With the internet there’s the strong appeal to share your custom content.

Fan Site Guidelines are not remotely complete without acknowledging fan creations.

Fans are not publishers and should not be held to the same requirements, i.e. lawyers and physical publication. Fans sites might not necessarily publish PDFs so requirements on including a logo or set of legal text on a set page are problematic.

Currently, the only electronic format permitted is a PDF. This should be opened up to allow people to post content on a blog, a forum, a wiki, mobile app, or even a twitter feed. Really, the Licence should be left open in the event of new formats being developed after the licence is written.

Similar to custom content is updated and adaptations. It’s easy to run adventures from 1st or 2nd Edition using the 5th Edition rules. There’s the potential for updates to become very common and fans publish conversion guides for their favourite adventures or monsters. So long as these updates require the original module to run and do not overly reprint copyrighted text, these conversions should be encouraged as they can further PDF sales at the increasingly misnamed dndclassics.com

Blogs

A topic near and dear to my heart is blogs. Blogs have become a huge part of the RPG industry, with the ENnie awards even having a category for Best Blog. There are so many great blogs online.

Most gaming blogs tend to be aimed at GMs, with advice on creating stories, running the game, planning encounters, and the like. Likely because GMs need much more advice than players, but there are a few aimed at PC, and a few that even include crunch.

Heck, blogs are on the verge of replacing books like the Dungeon Master’s Guide as reference tools for running the game, being free and able to evolve over time as new lessons are learned and people gain a better understanding of how to play an edition. WotC has even paid several accomplished bloggers to write for them; writing an acclaimed blog is now a method of earning work in the industry, demonstrating an ability to write comprehensible sentences and not make amature mistakes in writing and editing.

Blogs are something that doesn’t need as much direct attention in Fan Site Guidelines, as rulings ‘n’ advice on content generation or running a site for a homegame would cover much the same content. But blogs are something to keep in mind, especially when considering format. Few blogs are collected as PDFs

Fan Fiction

Something TSR and WotC has previously been very uncomfortable with is fanfic. When WotC allowed “Official Fan Sites” for their various campaign settings, one of the restrictions was a prohibition on fan fiction.

Limiting fanfic makes sense: all Wizard’s truly owns is its IP and it should not just permit people to borrow their characters or locales. They don’t want to risk someone’s unofficial tales being mistaken for an official story. Its possible for an internet search to link right to a document, bypassing the website, so it’s hard to know if you’re reading official Realmslore or a fans Elminster/Drizzt slash until you reach the… salacious bits.

And yet, in many ways D&D itself is fanfic;  planning out a campaign and running it is interactive fan fiction. Most adventure or campaign journals are fanfic. A detailed and well-written campaign journal of, say, Dragonlance’s War of the Lance Adventure Path wouldn’t be *that* different from the Chronicles trilogy of novels (characters and even events from the novels did have their origin in the playtest sessions). The most extreme example was a Japanese campaign journal was published as a series of novels that was adapted into the Record of Lodoss War animes.

Because it is so hard to draw the line between what is fanfiction and what is a campaign journal, good Fan Site Guidelines can’t prohibit any fanfic and should instead encourage appropriate creative displays. For example, instead of prohibiting stories set in worlds owned by WotC (which would theoretically prohibit journals of campaigns in those worlds) the policy could discourage fanfic using established characters. People should be allowed to tell their own stories in WotC’s worlds.

Campaign Settings

The various worlds of D&D are another issue that should be dealt with in good Fan Site Guidelines. Not all fan websites are going to be dedicated to home campaigns, there will invariably be support for campaign settings not currently being published.

There is at least one website for every campaign world, from Greyhawk and the Realms to Spelljammer and Dark Sun. But those sites use a ton of WotC IP from trademarked world names, characters, places, and monsters. Campaign fan sites are a big smörgåsbord of IP violations and each and every one could be shut down in a heartbeat at any time. Sites for non-supported worlds often go even farther, often updating the current ruleset to enable play in the world. The Dark Sun site has a comprehensive update of the world for the 3.5e ruleset.

How fan sites are treated often depend on who at Wizard’s spots a particular element. The Dragonlance community has been hit a few time. A fan created continent adding an Asian analogue to Krynn was contacted by the WotC legal team because it had a “samurai” class that they argued could be confused for the samurai class published by WotC. And a fan’s attempt at a comprehensive and detailed timeline was hit with a C+D. In contrast, a very similar effort to create a timeline for the Forgotten Realms was noticed by different staff at WotC who paid the creator for their time and printed it.

Fan Service

WotC can do many things to help ingratiate themselves to their fans, winning back their trust when needed or rewarding their faith.

Something as simple as promising not to revoke the GSL and allow fans to use it for the foreseeable future would help. There’s still some life left in 4e and that edition has some ardent fans, but there’s a reluctance to invest in a website or attempt to form a fan community out of fear that WotC will yank the licence and damage the ability of the website to continue.

There are also a number of editions that have never benefited from an OGL. If WotC is sincere about its intentions to “support all of D&D” then Fan Site Guidelines might also enable or encourage fans of older editions to create content, publish adventures, and the like. This costs WotC little as these fans are not active supporters of the hobby, but wins WotC some goodwill. This is a small industry and being liked by your fanbase is huge as it encourages brand loyalty.

Beyond this, the Fan Site Guidelines need to come out relatively early. The GSL came out weeks after 4e was launched and the Fan Site Kit over a year after launch. This is not something that should be delayed; it should be a priority. Having a policy ready before the edition launches puts the thought of creating content in the minds of fans, so if the launch excites them they might be prompted to start a blog or try their hand at writing. It lays the groundwork for the next generation of 3rd Party Publishers.